A two hundred year-old oak tree fell in my yard. It was eighty feet tall and fifty feet wide and it fell with a crack and a thud that shook the ground and jolted me from my sleep. It was raining and dark and hard to see. I stood at the window until my wife woke and asked what was going on.
“The old oak fell.”
“Oh no,” she said. “Not that tree.”
Her eyes filled with tears, I felt her even in the dark.
The next morning I went out to survey the damage. Mud, limbs and leaves were strewn all over. The many kinds of daffodil my son had meticulously planted in the summer were crushed. The tree had landed with such force it had unearthed some of the bulbs, sending them flying like floral hand grenades. The tips of the upper-most branches rested on a stone statue of the Buddha of Compassion, which stood at ease.
I was in disbelief for a few days. It wasn’t news that everything dies. But I had not applied that knowledge to this tree. I missed meditating under her shade, watching the squirrels float from branch to branch and the hummingbirds zip about. She had been a symbol of sorts—with her deep roots, her wide branches and her great steady trunk.
I thought she might live forever … and that I might too. Now she was firewood and I was surprisingly sad.
An arborist and I stood together, looking. “I can’t believe it’s dead,” I said, with a touch of drama.
“Oak trees fall Jason,” he said. “It’s one of the things they do.”
“Of course,” I thought, ‘that’s it too.’ That was a glimpse of light in the broken branches of my old oak tree.
I spent the day with the arborist and his crew, “cut here, not there,” removing the small branches and leaves, the limbs perched, perilous and unsteady. In the end, the grand multi-pronged trunk remained, the carcass of a giant. It had become a memorial to a fallen friend. “There,” I said looking at the remains of the oak and the blooms of the daffodils. “That looks like real life.”
There’s a sense of loss in the world right now, innocence lost with the realization that we don’t live in a perfect world, the greatest country, or the most advanced time ever. I feel some embarrassment that I ever believed we did. It seems we’ve all tuned in at once to the fact that our era is as imperfect as all the eras of the past, and perhaps as imperfect as the eras yet to come. We’ve been left with the dead trunk of our dreams looking longingly for some hope, only to find the plain face of life looking back. Here we are.
There’s a Zen koan that says: “My friends, do you think I’m hiding something from you? Actually, I am hiding nothing from you.”
Sometimes when life’s been hiding from us for a while—or we’ve been hiding from life—we don’t like the truth when it shows up. We think racism doesn’t exist where we live, or our stressful lives aren’t affecting our bodies, or that our oak tree will live forever. And then a friend calls. He’s cowering in his house with the lights out because immigration is raiding his neighborhood. Another friend gets a diagnosis and that could have been me. Or my favorite tree falls in the middle of the night. It’s easy to think this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. And yet it is how it is … and therefore, must be also how it’s meant to be. How else could it be? And just as I begin to despair at the bleakness of it all, I see my teenage son hug a homeless man and give him money for a meal. Or I change my diet and move my body and find my health improves. Or I spot the new daffodils, with creamy-white petals and a bright yellow center, blooming amidst the ruins of a dead oak tree. That’s truth too.
That same koan asks: “Can you smell the scent of the sweet olive blossoms? … You see, I’m hiding nothing from you.”
This winter, with its torrential rains, howling winds and fallen trees has brought me to a realization. I don’t live in the most beautiful place on earth. I live in the land where oak trees fall. Where politics can be crazy. And people I love get sick. It’s also a place where daffodils bloom, where my family loves me, and where random acts of kindness warm my heart. I live here, real life is what I’ve got, and life hides nothing from me.
A few thoughts to consider:
1) There’s a physical tenseness that shows up when we’re hiding from life. It appears as holding our breath, clenching our teeth, or a leg that won’t stop twitching under the table. Often the first step is to not hide from those signs but to become aware of what we’re feeling in our body without trying to apply an antidote. We might approach our body with a breath and a question like, “how are you?” or “what’s it like for you?” Just noticing is a way of showing up for ourselves and facing life. Paying attention opens the door for intimacy.
2) Sometimes hiding is disguised as asking life to hide from us. It’s the sense of not wanting to know the truth, even when we do know it. A desire to bury ourselves under the covers and not face our lives. We might catch ourselves telling our kids how they ought to feel instead of asking. Or find ourselves longing nostalgically about times we think were better than today. We might avoid reviewing data that shows a business plan has failed until it’s too late to fix. Or cancel our follow up with the doctor to review the lab results. This can be hard to see because we tend to shrink-wrap our life to prevent it from showing us truth that’s too painful to see. We might approach ourselves with a hypothetical, “If I were missing something what would it be?” or “If there were to be a surprise in my life, what would it look like?” These questions create a crack that’s safe for a truer version of life to seep through. 3) Life is hard. We don’t often give ourselves credit for what it takes to just get up each day and live our lives. We make life more difficult by treating ourselves harshly—judging, berating, or placing the bar so high we can never win our own approval. This instills a lack of trust within ourselves about facing life. We end up afraid not just of life but of our own reaction to it. When we practice small acts of self-compassion we start to reverse this pattern. Taking time to breathe, recognizing and celebrating our achievements, caring what we put in our bodies and taking a walk outside, smelling the sweet scented daffodils in the garden; these are ways we establish an inner friendship, learn to befriend our own lives, and build the trust to face life openly. 4) Meditation is a playground for allowing life to show up and ourselves to show up too. The basics of meditation—showing up, sitting down, not running away when our thoughts get scary or painful—are practice for doing the same when life gets real. It takes courage to sit when the whole world seems to be running in circles. When we show up and do this consistently, it builds those muscles in us and we develop the skill of facing life.
Can you smell the scent of the sweet olive blossoms? You see, I’m hiding nothing from you…